Wednesday 6 February 2019

An avalanche of shame: How social media went from becoming a site of abuse of women to a platform where women outed their abusers

How it all began

I remember about a decade ago I had chanced upon Orkut, which now seems Facebook’s pre-historic ancestor. I started basking in the azure Orkut skies with considerable glee because it was a chance to reconnect with friends I had lost to their IT jobs and their consequent dread of sending emails after doing it at work all day, even if to a long lost friend. A few days into the e-socialising I was warned by well wishers against putting up my photographs online. They had chosen to replace their own display pictures with white cherubs, celebs and tulips. Their unsolicited, solicitous advice came from what they had heard about the misuse of data and pictures online, especially when it came to women. Their was talk of morphed pictures, theft and blackmail in the cyberspace.

What they feared was not baseless but I still chose to live my life, online and otherwise, on my terms, rather than let unknown villainous forces determine my choices. I took the stand to fight those who stole and misused others’ data. It was the same as believing in asserting my claim over the physical public space and going out prepared to confront those who challenged this right of mine, instead of giving in to them and shrinking my world to my home.

I got a chance to put theory into practice soon enough when, not through Orkut but through Yahoo messenger, an anonymous blackmailer sent me messages threatening to tell my family I was dating someone. I was young and taken aback for a moment but was immediately seeing red hot rage in the presumptuous texts. I was outraged to think that a stranger could make so bold as to believe that he would have so much power over me because as a woman I was flouting a societal norm by dating. I had no intention of handing over my self-respect to him. I refused him what he was looking for – attention – and did not respond to the message. If my family received some malicious letter some day from a stranger, they certainly did not apprise me of it.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life/The world would split open”

Cut to the present day, many years later, and I find that the above lines from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem resonate with our reality. Looking at the #metoo movement in India, we would find many women outing their sexual abusers online, through Twitter but also through Facebook and Instagram. It is also a slap in the face of that annoying expression about women being women’s enemies. Women at the front of the movement have formed a protective wall around those who could bring themselves to share their horror stories only because they were promised anonymity in the online public space. This has been one of the most heartening examples of the women’s solidarity network that always existed but was not adequately acknowledged in the misogynist discourse. Women are trying to ensure that survivors, many having to relive their trauma in the retelling, get what they need: therapy, legal help, a patient ear. This one hashtag on social media has brought women together across the globe.

It is not that social media has ceased to be the abusive arena it has been for women, same as any other public space in which women first make their foray. Sudipti, who writes regularly for Hindi publications online and in print, and is a schoolteacher, says, “As a woman as long as you are writing on gender and other social issues, you may still be fine. Expand further into religion and politics and be prepared to witness the backlash. After writing continuously on these issues, I got exhausted handling the constant whataboutery and prejudice, and stopped.”

But digital footprints are easier to track than physical ones and women have also given back as good as they got by taking action against abuse through solid proofs like emails and screenshots, which the social media makes easier to save and reproduce. Having practised theatre in Paris, Delhi and Dharamshala, Niranjani Iyer was one of those who make their Facebook profiles due to exhortations by friends and then their digital presence gets relegated to the background. In the context of women speaking out online, she exclaims: “I never thought I would say this but I am so glad that social media exists. I would still say Twitter can be noisy but with Instagaram you can reach so many.” Theatre needs its practitioners to take on different roles and personas, and those in power take advantage of these grey areas to abuse their colleagues. “This movement has not exploded in theatre yet. But it has made people rethink power equations. The kind of things people in power have got away with . . . the impunity . . . I don’t think it’s possible now. The potential for women to come out with their stories is huge.” She talks of the notion of shame imposed on women, which led to guilt in women about what had been done to them. “Now women are speaking up and saying, ‘You did this’.”

In journalism, theatre, writing, music, films, different kinds of art spaces, in some ways it can become easier to gaslight victims because the abusers often have politically correct, progressive, masks. The wordplay they employ to defend themselves can also be that much more brazen and preposterous. Take the case of accused poet CP Surendran trying to defend himself in his statement (Firstpost, 16 October 2018): “I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality . . . I choose not to think in given categories.”

Social media has enabled abusers as well, by giving men an easy space for their sanctimonious declamations that contradict their acts of violations, so that victims in the beginning end up questioning themselves and potential supporters of survivors are full of doubts. On the basis of an image formation that they achieve on this fluid medium, announcing book deals and getting themselves photographed with well known faces seen in the mainstream media, their stream of “friends” and “followers” who believe in that image also grows.

When such a personality, a well known poet, was called out on Facebook by another poet, the survivor was met with both support and disbelief. Poet and scholar Semeen Ali was one of those to come out in the survivor’s support and, with other poets, sent a letter to Sahitya Akademi. The letter demanded that the accused step down from the editorship of a prestigious anthology in the making, which many of the signatory poets had been selected to be part of.

Semeen recalls the series of events to have unfolded after that: “There were people who signed the letter and backed out. They did not want to ruin their equation with him [the accused]. The Indian poetry scene is really small and many do not speak up as they are afraid they won’t be published in anthologies.” Of these, many were later invited to readings organised by the accused, while some places that used to earlier invite Semeen’s poetry distanced themselves from her. Semeen is also a book reviewer and, after this incident, refused to review books written by the accused, knowing that possible consequences could include her being “blacklisted” as a reviewer as well by some renowned publications. “And that’s ok”, she says, “I could not keep silent knowing what had happened, also considering my personal experience and those of other poets as well when it came to the behaviour of the accused on several occasions.”

The loss of conditional friendships and spaces for career advancement have not deterred other women. Like Niranjani, who started her own theatre company and did physical theatre in India at a time of dialogue based plays, believes, “What are spaces, after all? Spaces can be created.” In cases where an accused has been first named on social media, many other women have come out with their stories of him. Others came out to support the survivor and her case. There have also been women who started putting out their stories anonymously, sharing their identity details only to one or more of the women who were ready to listen and to share these stories further with permission. Some of these anonymous tellers later revealed their identities, which gave their narratives even greater credibility but also added to their vulnerability.

Their life on social media was scrutinised by naysayers. Women with a “low” follower count online were accused of sharing their stories of abuse to gain more followers; they were asked again and again to repeat lurid details of the harassment, blamed for “harming” the reputation and career of the men who had ruined the women’s reputation and career, and left them with enduring trauma. Actor Tanushree Datta’s account of harassment by co-actor Nana Patekar when she refused to enact certain scenes for a film was mocked by trolls who circulated video clips showing her kissing on screen in other films.

It was the usual scene of trolling and abuse that women face when they speak up. Only this time they were not alone. They were standing up for each other; they were educating, agitating, organising, through letters demanding investigations to organisations the accused were a part of, to the police, the court and the National Commission for Women. The Network for Women in Media in India kept taking regular cognisance of these accounts and pushed for action, along with providing support to survivors.

An online movement? Really?

Online movements were scoffed at in the beginning as the best one could expect of lazy millennials. However, with time it became clear that not all online campaigns lack teeth. From protests in Iran and Egypt to #Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, all over the world people have successfully used social media to amplify their causes.

Concerns have been expressed about whether the Indian #metoo movement with a large online base can be truly inclusive, whether it can reach those much lower in the rung when it comes to caste, class and patriarchal oppression, many of whom have no access to digital spaces. It would be naive to believe that the number of social media users in India represent the whole country, or a balanced gender ratio among its users. Think tank LIRNEAsia’s study, reported by Karishma Mehrotra for The Indian Express on 8 August 2018, showed that 80 percent of Indian men are mobile users, and only 43 percent women have cellphones. The gender gap in users is higher in rural areas, 52 percent, and was recorded as 34 percent in urban India. 64 percent, of which 68 percent were women, did not know about the Internet. 27 percent of those who did know mostly used it for social media.

But there is clearly potential for more in a scenario where a person in a village recharge their phone with Rs 10 to watch an entire movie. India has the highest annual growth rate of Internet users. If mobiles and the world wide web did not offer spaces of expansion to women, khap panchayats and town councils would not have advised women against those things.

Rural women reporters of Khabar Lahariya joined the #metoo women to talk of the daily harassment done by their male counterparts, and shared how men had stopped sending them porn in the wake of the movement. Garment workers, bus conductors and street vendors in Karnataka met publicly and spoke about the harassment they are forced to face at their workplaces every day if they want to hold on to their jobs. These examples are not enough.

But it is also important to remember that women from non-urban spaces have not spoken up for the first time. In fact it was Bhanwari Devi, a rural, Dalit woman, whose fight against the sexual violence done to her led to the Vishakha Guidelines and a law against sexual harassment at workplace. So the notion that only urban women can “take” the movement to the unorganised and rural sectors is also flawed, though urban, digitally educated women can certainly work to spread it. Raya Sarkar, a bahujan feminist who started the movement online in 2017 says in a Livemint interview to Rituparna Chatterjee (who has been one of those at the forefront of the 2018 campaign), published on 15 October 2018, “A lot more can be done because dalit, adivasi and bahujan women’s voices are missing from the discourse right now . . . It should include the voices of trans women, homosexual men and women and non-binary folks.” But what the movement has done despite its limitations is to remind women themselves of the power of solidarity, of the responsibility each woman has of keeping it open and inclusive, working together to reclaim the online space as well as the public domain and ensuring more women have safe access to these spaces.

Where do women stand as social media users?

Women on social media were first targeted by companies as mere consumers. The Internet is rife with video advertisements celebrating gender equality, though on television this is still making slow progress. But as women started being attacked for being political and not just personal beings online, they demanded better regulations from platforms and a zero-tolerance approach to threats and hate speech. The end result is far from being achieved in entirety but the pressure forced platforms like Twitter and Facebook to take into account online sexual harassment done through their platforms. These groups have since come up with tools to provide a safer environment for women online and collaborated with women’s rights groups to work better in this direction. At the same time, there is sometimes great disparity in how these platforms take action: a person’s account gets suspended for their political opinions while another openly abusive person continues to retain their account. These practices would need to be remedied even if companies have no interests other than business ones are heart, and it might encourage more women, therefore more “consumers”, to start using these platforms.

There are groups studying the intersection of gender and technology, fighting for a safer and more equal space for women online, organising trainings for women on digital security and on dealing with trolling and cybercrimes. Tactical Tech Collective’s XYZ platform, Internet Democracy Project, Feminism in India, Access Now, Digital Empowerment Foundation are some of the various groups involved in doing and supporting similar work.

One way social media has offered a safe haven to women is by connecting them to support groups that they do not always find in their physical lives: there exist groups for domestic violence survivors to single mother groups. These are safe spaces for the women to share their experiences, seek out advice and be connected to experts, legal and health professionals as required.

“The meek shall inherit the earth”

What happens on social media does not necessarily remain on social media. The multiple accusations against ex-Union minister MJ Akbar have now turned into a defamation suit against one of the accusers, journalist Priya Ramani. When this made news, women on social media started pledging all sorts of support to Ramani. There were several who wanted to help with the legal expenses; others kept reassuring that all of them would back Ramani’s fight in whatever way possible. Most of these people were unknown to the journalist herself. Amidst everyday articles about social media leading to loneliness, there were hordes of women assuring each other of solidarity and support.

I was recently sitting in a room with other writers and poets, all men, when a poet was asked to recite something in particular. The poet refused, looked at me and said he would rather avoid it in this /#metoo phase. I quietly corrected him to say that it is not a phase, it is here to stay.

Twenty-years after her demonisation, in the US Monica Lewinsky is finally appearing in a docuseries (made by a team with women in majority) on The Clinton Affair. In a piece by her in Vanity Fair titled “Who Gets to Live in Victimville?” (13 November 2018), Lewinsky writes, “Bye-bye, Lewinsky scandal . . . I think 20 years is enough time to carry that mantle.” She remembers that when Clinton got quizzed about why he had had this inappropriate relationship, his answer was “Because I could”. Responding to questions about why Lewinsky would go through the trauma of participating in the series that demanded digging up of painful memories and unsavoury news articles, she states she participated because “I [she] could”, to ensure that what happened to her “never happens to another young person in our [her] country again”.

Herein also lies the reason why it has not been easy to dismiss the Indian #metoo movement as a social media “fad” or “trend”, though many used these frivolous terms to denigrate the movement. It is because women are speaking up not just for themselves but for those who fought before them and for the ones to come after. Statement after statement by survivors echoes this thought . . . that they are doing this for others who suffered and took the risk of speaking up, or so their sisters and daughters and any other woman does not end up believing that silence is their only recourse. These are women who have often and repeatedly been failed by due processes instituted by official committees and laws. In fact, their voicing themselves on social media has exposed the inefficacy of many of these systems and organisations and also shown that power does not lie in the hands of a few people at the heads of committees and institutions. Women have used social media to create spaces and platforms that had been consistently and unapologetically denied to them, and those who robbed women of these rights would now have to contend with their complicity. Those who have been holding their breath for the movement to “fizzle out” should instead take a deep breath and prepare for the long haul. The day of reckoning that they thought would never come is finally here.

First published in The Equator Line, Jan-Mar 2019.

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